Author Mary Carter Bishop knew she could let the story die.
For a long time, Bishop wasn't sure that she would write her family's story. But she kept being drawn back into it, even when there were other stories she thought she should be writing. For years, she tried to tell close friends — people she characterizes as highly compassionate and patient — but it usually took her two hours and even then she'd forget some of the strands of the story. "The only way was to write it," she recalls. "To digest it all on the written page."
The result is a profound Southern family memoir, "Don't You Ever: My Mother and Her Secret Son."
Bishop was an adult when she made the shocking discovery. While applying for a passport, she saw on her birth certificate that her mother had another child - a half-brother to Bishop – whose identity had been kept secret her entire life. When she questioned her mother, a farm manager's wife on estate in Keswick, Bishop was told that Ronnie, the abandoned boy, was the result of an encounter with a married man.
When the author finally tracked her brother down nine years later, it was at the Vinton barbershop where he worked. While he was glad to see her, he was also a near-broken man who'd been irreversibly damaged by a life of neglect and abuse after years in foster care and institutions, while Bishop had been raised with love and attention by doting parents. Tragically, Ronnie was also disfigured by a rare medical condition that would claim his life three years after they reunited.
For years, Bishop went back and forth about whether she should write a book.
"Mom gave me permission, but still, I knew some would see it as a violation of her and of Ronnie," she says. But when she finally put the details together, she felt it explained why so many terrible things had happened to her mother and half-brother. She also felt that she'd treated both with compassion in her book.
"My mother was driven out of her loving community. That's how shameful it was in the 1930s in rural Virginia where Christian forgiveness didn't extend to unmarried girls and women who got pregnant," Bishop says. "Where there were no repercussions at all for the males who got them pregnant. … People can learn from an outing of the many injustices done to mom and Ronnie. But I probably wrote this more for me than for anybody else."
Arriving in Richmond three days after graduating Mary Washington College in 1967, Bishop's first newspaper job was at The Richmond News Leader writing obituaries, followed by stints writing for the women's section and religion pages until 1972. She went on to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the nuclear leaks at Three Mile Island. Later at the Roanoke Times & World-News, her coverage of poisonings and fraud by exterminators was a Pulitzer finalist.
Despite an award-winning career in journalism, Bishop found it difficult emotionally to dig into her family story. It helped that neither her mother nor Ronnie threw anything away and she'd kept all their belongings after their deaths, so many of the details were already in boxes in her basement or in the notes of her long-kept journal.
"The hardest parts of my research were reading the documents from the orphanage that housed him and from the mental hospital where he was sent at 17," she says. "At the time, there were few foster parents and institutions for unwanted juveniles. Virginia's large mental hospitals were often the only shelters for unwanted teens."
In writing the book, Bishop finally came to understand the extreme contrasts between Ronnie's childhood and hers. She recalls being treated almost like another species by her mother. "I was her legitimate child, her golden girl, who she could present to the world," Bishop says. "I was saintly little Mary Carter. Ronnie, on the other hand, was a reminder of her great shaming."
It's Bishop's hope that readers apply the lessons from her family's story to their own lives. "I hope they'll think about how women have been abused forever and everywhere and how social class bigotry and lack of education doom so many people worldwide." S
Mary Carter Bishop reads from "Don't You Ever: My Mother and Her Secret Son" on Thursday, July 26, 6 p.m. at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St., 422-8066, chopsueybooks.com.